Dark Sun: The Making
of the Hydrogen Bomb

by Richard Rhodes. Simon & Schuster, 1995. 731 pages, $32.50

Dark Sun is a worthy but glummer successor to Richard Rhodes' astonishing The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Like the earlier book, it represents a feat of painstaking research, interpretation, and narrative clarity, moving from technical details of bomb construction to the sometimes baffling psychologies of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and General Curtis LeMay. It not only chronicles the US H-bomb effort but it supplies the previously unavailable story of the Soviet bomb program, carried out under the direction of the brilliant Igor Kurchatov with the help of thousands of pages of stolen US documents, and in the shadow of Stalin's henchman Lavrenti Beria.

The story told in The Making of the Atomic Bomb gave that book a certain tragic grandeur. Beginning with the earliest research by Niels Bohr and others into the nature of the atom, Rhodes traced how the quest to understand matter eventually revealed the possibility of creating a weapon of unimaginable destructiveness, and how the struggle against the Nazis made the development of that weapon a matter of the highest urgency. Dark Sun tells a less idealistic story, the story of how politicians and physicists, having already "known sin," proceeded to create something even worse than the A-bomb. It also adds a new and darker dimension to the story told in the first book, by filling in the details of the massive Soviet espionage operation that infiltrated the Manhattan Project.

Perhaps because there is more politics and less idealism in Dark Sun than its predecessor, the language, though clear and brisk, seldom soars. One exception is a description of Mike, the first megaton-scale hydrogen bomb, which lends a vivid concreteness to an object usually thought of in apocalyptic or geopolitical terms. "Steel, lead, waxy polyethylene, purple-black uranium, gold leaf, copper, stainless steel, plutonium, a breath of tritium, silver deuterium effervescent as sea-wake: Mike was a temple, tragically Solomonic, evoking the powers that fire the sun."

The most startling and frightening element in Dark Sun may be the revelation of how much General Curtis LeMay, the head of Strategic Air Command, wanted to start World War III, and how close he came to succeeding. During the 1950s, LeMay ordered US reconnaissance aircraft to fly over the Soviet Union, "knowing as he did so that he might be provoking war." On one occasion, LeMay said, "we flew all of the reconnaissance aircraft that SAC possessed over Vladivostok at high noon." If the Soviet Union had done the same over a US city, Rhodes notes, "SAC would surely have preempted. The Soviets hunkered down because they had no adequate response, but their lack of defenses predictably emboldened LeMay." In 1954 LeMay told some staff members, "Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started." Rhodes concludes that LeMay was not kidding. The general believed the Soviet Union should be crushed by a first strike -- a "Sunday punch" of the entire 7,000-megaton US arsenal -- before it grew strong enough to retaliate effectively. No one at the time imagined the deadly "nuclear winter" that such an attack would bring on.

Deterrence works, Rhodes argues. The threat of mutual destruction is the main reason why nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare since August 1945. But the temptation persists. During the Korean War, nine atomic bombs were shipped to Guam, ready for use. In a recent talk at the Boston Public Library, Rhodes noted that as recently as the Gulf War it was proposed to detonate a nuclear air burst over the Middle East in order to disrupt the enemy's electronic equipment. The demons are still out of the box.


Published in the Harvard Post, December 15, 1995.

Geoff Wisner :: Book Reviews :: Dark Sun: The Makingof the Hydrogen Bomb


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